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Content Canada 2019

The HBO treatment

HBO Central Europe’s Antony Root wants to replicate the US cablenet’s success with high-end drama and sees format adaptations as the way to do it. Michael Pickard reports.

Anthony Root

Anthony Root

Since launching in Hungary in 1991, HBO Central Europe has steadily rolled out local versions of the US premium pay cable network.

Now, more than 20 years later and on air in 14 Central and Eastern European (CEE) territories, the channel is ramping up its original production strategy under Antony Root, executive VP of original programming and production.

HBO has committed to building production bases in four key territories – Warsaw in Poland, Budapest in Hungary, Prague in the Czech Republic and Bucharest in Romania – and each one last year launched a local version of an Israeli scripted format.

Hungary produced an adaptation of Armoza Formats’ relationship drama Shall We Kiss? while the others each made series of half-hour drama In Treatment, which was also adapted by HBO in the US.

Root is now aiming to produce seven original series across the region this year, with the second season of In Treatment already in production in Romania. Poland and the Czech Republic are also renewing the series later this year.

“That’s a very good development of the business here,” says Root. “We’re here to make the things we want to make and the measure isn’t about making seven series this year and nine next year. We want to put a stake in the ground for a certain kind of quality and values in a show and differentiate ourselves in the market. We want to have a wonderful offering to give to local audiences that makes it appealing for them to subscribe to HBO.”

As part of his original production strategy, Root is looking to produce original format-based series such as In Treatment and event miniseries, the first of which began production in Prague in March.

The Burning Bush is written by Stepan Hulík, produced by Nutprodukce and directed by Agnieszka Holland (The Wire, The Killing). It tells the story of Jan Palach, the student who burned himself to death in 1969 in protest at the Soviet Union sending troops into Czechoslovakia. The three-part drama is due to air in the Czech Republic in 2013.

“That’s a wonderful project, not least because it’s a key story in the country,” says Root. “It also reverberates around the region and we in the West have heard about it. It’s a fantastic script and we have a leading director from the region directing. So our strategy is [to air] a combination of series that we like and want to echo the HBO brand and event miniseries that speak with a loud voice to local audiences.”

In Treatment Poland

In Treatment Poland

Since taking up his post in October last year, Root has been building links with independent producers across CEE. The former senior VP of European production at Sony Pictures Television says it is his “mission” to create content that can find an audience across the region.

“The shows must appeal locally because we are producing in different languages but it is our hope and intention these event miniseries, like The Burning Bush, would work throughout the region and sometimes be attractive outside it as well,” he says. “My mission is to create material that speaks in the region and to draw on and grow local talent. One of the great things about HBO is they greenlight shows when we really want to do them. We certainly want to expand our output over the next few years.”

The television industry in CEE has seen huge growth in recent years, with international broadcasters such as Viacom International Media Networks and A+E Networks launching new brands, Blink! and Crime & Investigation respectively.

With an influx of competition, Root says HBO must stand out from the crowd. “A market like Poland is already very competitive in pay services as well as in terrestrial services. Other markets aren’t quite as developed and, indeed, are smaller because Poland is a much bigger country and a bigger economy, so it does vary from place to place,” he says.

“But we certainly aren’t complacent about competition and we know we have a great advantage because we have a highly defined brand in our sister company in the US. And when we talk to writers, producers and directors, there’s a very quick shorthand to being able to communicate what it is we think we want to do and hearing what they have that might fit that.”

For creatives already working domestically, there is also the chance to win a commission for a programme that might not sit comfortably on a terrestrial network. “There’s an opportunity to do a certain sort of material that wouldn’t otherwise get produced,” adds Root. “Whenever I talk to producers, we tell them to think of us as they might HBO US, as a place where filmmakers can come with projects for television for a slightly different form and where people working in the trenches of commercial television can perhaps do ideas they wouldn’t be able to do in that context but could do for us.”

HBO Central Europe is developing ideas for series and event miniseries from its original production teams working in each of its four hubs, while local producers are also welcome to pitch their ideas. “We are actively seeking both original dramatic series and international formats that might be appropriate for us to make local versions of and we’re also looking for very strong event miniseries, so we’re constantly alert for that and looking for proposals,” says Root.

In Treatment Romania

In Treatment Romania

In Treatment, based on the Israeli format BeTipul from Dori Media Group, follows a psychologist and his sessions with four patients and is stripped five days a week. HBO US had already aired its own version, starring Gabriel Byrne, and HBO Central Europe CEO Linda Jensen was considering acquiring the finished programme before deciding to produce local versions in three countries.

The format appealed partly because of the cost factor. “It’s not an expensive show in terms of physical production. It has a limited number of sets; it’s almost like theatre,” says Root. “You can shoot it fairly efficiently and quickly, so there was an economic attraction. The other attraction was that it’s not like anything you would see from a public service or commercial broadcaster in any of these countries. It’s absolutely distinctive and different. Differentiation is probably the key word, particularly in busy markets like Poland, but the same holds true in other territories as well.”

HBO Poland is also developing a local version of The Naked Truth, an Israeli crime drama from Armoza about a team of police officers investigating the disappearance of a young girl from a powerful family. The series, which aired on Channel 10 in Israel, has already been greenlit for an HBO US adaptation.

Coproductions, however, are not among the broadcaster’s production priorities, as it sets its sights on developing content for a local audience. “We’re not the place to bring an English-language show about a Hungarian, a Romanian and a German. That’s just not the business we’re in,” says Root. “What we’re doing comes very much out of the US experience. When you have a premium pay cable service, you’re offering something unique and special that speaks locally. Bringing writers, directors and actors that are known locally to the screen is a very important part of what we do and a key to some of the success.

“In Treatment has been cast in each of our territories with very significant local actors. Often in these territories, the tradition for actors is in theatre and film, and very rarely television. In Romania, we have a wonderful actor called Marcel Iures. He’s from theatre, film and Hollywood movies but here he is coming to us to do some television, which he probably would not normally do in his own country.”

Shall We Kiss? Hungary

Shall We Kiss? Hungary

HBO Central Europe won’t be following in rival broadcasters’ footsteps, however, and is determined to set trends rather than produce content based on what has already proved popular. And Root also has one eye on the distribution market when he outlines HBO’s desire to fully finance projects and therefore amass a catalogue of rights it can exploit overseas. “It’s HBO’s job to make its own trends,” he says. “The subjects you choose must resonate locally and you want to have people in them who have cachet locally. In Treatment has attracted some major actors to work in a medium they would not normally work in. They can then become part of the appeal for the audience, to see names they may know in another context actually do something quite different.

“We like to fully finance and when we do we expect to have rights fully commensurate with that. Certainly, we are in the business of encouraging the best producers to come to us with the best projects. Then we make a deal that’s appropriate or satisfies everyone.”

When HBO launched in the US in 1972, it began the long road to becoming one of the flagship global brands for critically acclaimed dramas. Root is now aiming to jump-start the Central European production line. “Ultimately,” he concludes, “we hope to make shows that can become benchmarks for ambition and quality.”

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